There is unnerving tension spun throughout much of Quentin Tarantino’s filmography, from the neo-noir smoke of 1994’s Pulp Fiction to the barbaric rage of the Kill Bill series (2003-2004) and 2015’s revisionist-western flick The Hateful Eight. The director, “one of the greatest filmmakers that ever lived,” has a keen, bloodshot eye for keeping the viewer woefully uncomfortable, tapping into primal fantasies and unearthing some of the most disturbing corners of humanity. Gwen Sebastian employs much of the same theatrical tricks on her new record, dusty-saloon long-player Once Upon a Time in the West: Act I ⎯⎯ “I wanted it to sound sort of like a Quentin Tarantino movie soundtrack with a little bit of sweetness to it, as well,” she described ⎯⎯ and as vital as singer-songwriters Jason Isbell, Christian Lopez and Kasey Chambers play to the heartstrings of Americana and fringe country music, Sebastian exerts even more formidable influence and style.
The singer, from the small farming town of Hebron, North Dakota, establishes her own “wild, spaghetti western,” a broad, sub-genre that emerged post-Sergio Leone and references Italian-directed films, with the titular opener, written by Sebastian, Brady Seals and Brian Eckert. “A devil’s smile, angel eyes / Rock ‘n roll and avant garde / A London-town born cowboy who knew the way to my heart,” she entices, dressing up her vocal with silvery coos and narrator-mode storytelling. “Street smart and innocence, a tumble weed, a yellow rose / Amigos and amoré / Riding down these dusty roads.”
“These dusty roads” are littered with smoky vignettes of heartbreak, romance, adventure and solemn confessions. “Fade to black…” she whispers, the parched and dusty guitar-laden piece settling on the ground. The somber, brooding tone set, Sebastian unpacks a fiercely-personal collection. From the bluesy front-porch ditty “Blue Flame” (Sebastian, Terri Jo Box, Randall Clay) ⎯⎯ “Bad as I get burned, that kind of heat is worth the pain,” she affirms of throbbing chest pangs ⎯⎯ the gutting “Cadillac” (written with April Lewis and Miranda Lambert), a depiction of a restless heroine hypnotized by the West and “a Bakersfield boy with a guitar callous,” and “Drunk or Stoned” (Sebastian, Seals, Eckert), in which she seeks vices “to make it all alright,” Once Upon a Time works best at its most vulnerable, peeping from between the blinds of her life.
“I take a pill to make me get skinny / I try to fill my mirror with pretty,” she awakens the anguished complexity of womanhood, mangled by society’s heinous requirements, her own chipped self-worth and break-ups. “Got bottle out of drinks, bottle out of lies / I sure wouldn’t put my time on losers and lashes / French tips flicking ashes, high heels on bar stools, falling for bar fools.” She wanders through ghosts of her past on “Losers and Lashes” (a Box, Clay co-write), reliving each painful prick as a cathartic upheaval, which in turn reenergizes her dignity and ownership of self, independently defined from men. “Been a parking-lot crier, a rear-view mirror make-up re-applier / It’s like a girl’s right of passage, losing losers and lashes,” she conveys, then stepping into the role as a wary matriarch advising younger women of troubles ahead.
Sebastian not only stitches together tales of romantic strife but regals sentimental anecdotes of other personal threads. “Cry to Jackson,” a collaboration with songwriter Blu Sanders (also penned by Box), was inspired by a friend’s father who “was here visiting from Texas, and they were shopping and she looked at her dad and he looks so sad and she said, ‘Dad what’s wrong’ and he said ‘It’s OK, it’s just that I’m leaving today, but I’ll probably only cry to Jackson.'” The brittle “I’m Not with the Band” (Sebastian, Lambert, Lewis, Anderson East) recounts a musician’s erratic road-life from the spouse’s perspective ⎯⎯ “I didn’t have the heart to say I hadn’t heard from you in days / She probably heard me hesitate, so I dry the tears while the dishes wait” ⎯⎯ and “Love Birds” (Sebastian, Aaron Raitiere, Adam Hood) harpoons “even the good ones” who might “forget the unwritten rules of our relationship” from time to time.
Smacked in the first half, the Ashley Monroe-assisted “Wing and a Feather” (Sebastian, Lambert, Monroe) is a jaw-dropping performance illustrating the burning out of a flame (“I don’t need you,” she claims, “if I keep saying it out loud”), while the funky barn-burner “Ain’t All That Bad” (Sebastian, Box, Clay), containing biting drum kicks and hazy vocal distortion, insists things could be much worse, even at its utter worst. “Oh Cowboy,” which Sebastian wrote alone and features Lambert on background vocals, unravels a sad, campfire story about a lonesome cowboy’s struggles, which he pulls behind him in his wagon, and so, he strums his guitar to mend his pain, singing “prairie lullabies” to the girl “by his side.”
Sebastian, who appears to have reached a stunning artistic peak, bookends her record with another solo write and her most aching and moving vocal composition to-date. “Way to Go” (“Thank God I made it to tomorrow,” she cries) overflows with a sublime, heartbreaking melody, haunting piano and guitar work and her incisive head voice. “Lying on a blanket watching a sun set with the ocean meets the shore of a quiet sand / We’re standing on Horseshoe Hill looking out across the sky / That sounds like something I’d like,” she carves out, staging a reflection on her entire life, unwavering faith and one’s final moments alive. “Just knowing that I was loved and I had no regrets / Oh, I bet, that could be a good last breath,” she sings, unleashing every ounce of heart and soul. “If I should die tomorrow, let me know, so I can choose my way to go.”
Thank God, we made it to the release of Sebastian’s fourth studio record.
Grade: 4 out of 5